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Trojan Horse ‘Islam plot’ claims spinning beyond Birmingham city council control as Michael Gove waits in the wings

Trojan Horse ‘Islam plot’ claims spinning beyond Birmingham city council control as Michael Gove waits in the wings

🕔15.Apr 2014

It is becoming clear that fallout from allegations of a ‘Trojan Horse’ plot by militant Muslims to infiltrate Birmingham schools is spinning rapidly beyond the city council’s control.

What began as claims about a small number of schools, where it was said moderate teachers and governors were being driven out by bullying and intimidation and being replaced by Islamic hard-liners, was bad enough.

But the focus has widened. There are now 25 schools under investigation and that number is expected to rise. These, incidentally, include a wide range of establishments – primaries, secondary schools, council-run schools and academies.

The council has received at least 200 letters, emails and telephone calls from past and present school governors, teachers and parents wishing to complain about what they say has been going on, particularly at secular schools allegedly subject to “creeping Islamisation”. As a result of this, the process for appointing school governors has been suspended by the council.

The council has rather belatedly – these claims have been known about since last November – launched an inquiry and hired additional staff to probe the Trojan Horse claims.

Lurking in the background behind all of this lays the spectre of Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, who is taking a personal interest in the matter.

It is probably bad news for any education authority to become the subject of Mr Gove’s focus. Here is a politician who appears not to play by the normal rules and doesn’t care who he upsets and already has Birmingham in his sights over the city’s failing children’s social services. Add on to that his reputation for favouring “radical” solutions, and it becomes apparent that Birmingham should view the next few weeks with trepidation.

Ofsted has conducted emergency inspections at 15 of the Trojan Horse schools. This is believed to be the first time that the watchdog has descended on so many schools at once. The results of the inspections are with Mr Gove who is deciding the best course of action to take. Further inspections may be ordered at the other schools under investigation.

A press briefing called by the council at the beginning of the week was a dispiriting affair.

None of those present from the local authority’s side – council leader Sir Albert Bore, cabinet members Brigid Jones and John Cotton, chief executive Mark Rogers and Director of Education Sally Taylor – looked for one second as if they wanted to be there. To describe their demeanour as grim would be a serious understatement.

Cotton, the cabinet member for social cohesion, said nothing at all. This was odd since the council’s contention is that the Trojan Horse claims may spill over into trouble on the streets. Cotton, you would think, might have a view on this. If he does, he kept it to himself.

Brigid Jones, the cabinet member for schools, cut a sorry sight after appearing to blame Birmingham’s problems on journalists, which is never a sensible thing to do at a press conference. When asked why relatively little had been done since November to investigate the allegations, Jones replied that “we didn’t publish details of the Trojan Horse letters, it was the media”.

Sir Albert, a veteran of Harold Macmillan’s quip about ‘events’ being the sure-fire thing to throw leaders off course, did his best to give the impression that the council was urgently addressing the issue by setting up an operational group and a review group and a scrutiny inquiry, as well as hiring a former head teacher and a senior civil servant to oversee matters.

But Sir Albert did not try to play down the role of Mr Gove. “We do expect that the Department for Education will be making further announcements and comments. We suspect the DfE will make public their comments prior to publication of the Ofsted reports, but that is a matter for the DfE and the Secretary of State.”

Sir Albert declined to elaborate on the DfE’s expected announcements, but it seems inevitable that some form of Government-imposed inquiry into Birmingham schools will be triggered. Privately, the council is resigned to intervention by Mr Gove.

The council’s position on all of this is nuanced. Unfortunately, nuance doesn’t really work when the national media is looking for a story about Muslim infiltration of schools.

The message the council wants to get over, as evidenced by Mark Rogers’ interview with Chamberlain Files, is that there is no organised plot to radicalise school children. But, with West Midlands Police still pondering the Trojan Horse letters and without the results of any formal investigation into the matter to hand, how is it possible for Mr Rogers to be so certain?

He may come to decide that he was unwise to describe the letters as “almost certainly spurious”. When quizzed about this at this week’s media briefing, the chief executive attempted to avoid the question before answering, somewhat lamely, “what I said was they were probably spurious”.

His line is that some of the issues thrown up by Trojan Horse are the “inevitable” questions arising from Birmingham’s “new communities” seeking to replicate the type of schooling their children would receive at home. This, clearly, is likely to cause friction with our liberal education system.

This may help to explain claims about segregation of boys and girls in lessons and objections from parents about girls taking part in PE lessons, but it does not address allegations of anti-Christian and anti-American chanting or begin to explain why moderate teachers and governors have been driven from schools, if indeed this is actually the case.

Writing in his own blog on March 31, Mr Rogers drew on inspiration from President Roosevelt and the poet John Donne to elaborate on his belief that “every single child and young person in this city has an equal opportunity to benefit from the highest quality learning and teaching in order that they can fulfil their potential and realise their ambitions and dreams”.

Roosevelt, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, and Donne ‘no man is an island’, were recruited to help the chief executive make the case that all communities must respect each other.

His comments represent a manifesto for the liberal education establishment: “A great education system is also a great leveller – and one that levels up. By this I mean that it will recognise all the different aspects of the society that it serves – the social, economic, cultural, religious and other features of our multi-faceted world – and allow none of them to get in the way of putting a child’s success front and centre.

“If I am to be respectful of you and your values and beliefs, then so should I expect that you will be respectful of mine. To celebrate diversity is not to ask someone to believe what you believe and be the same as you; but it is to ask them to show understanding and empathy – and to offer likewise in return.

“Where there is not this reciprocity then indifference, intransigence or, most worryingly of all, disconnection, radicalisation and, ultimately, confrontation can occur. And it is this that we must guard against for we know where it can lead.”

These are fine words, I am sure. The problem, as Mr Rogers must realise, is that fundamentalists of whatever colour or creed can never be respectful of the values and beliefs of others for they do not believe that these values and beliefs are worthy of respect.

I hesitate to throw into the mix a quote attributed to St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits – ‘give me the child for seven years and I will give you the man’ – but this really does strike at the heart of why a broad, well-rounded, schooling is vital to a society at ease with itself. If fundamentalists are gaining a toe-hold in Birmingham schools, then that must be a matter of concern for us all.

UPDATE: Shortly after publication, the Department of Education announced that Michael Gove has appointed Peter Clarke, former Met officer and Commissioner in charge of the Counter Terrorism Command, to review evidence in relation to serious allegations that schools in Birmingham are being targeted by individuals wishing to push an Islamist agenda.

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